By-Election Blow For Lebanese Government

David Byers and agencies

Times Online
August 6, 2007

Lebanon’s fragile Western-backed Government suffered another blow
today, after it lost a by-election to a Maronite Christian candidate
aligned with the country’s pro-Syrian opposition.

The results of the election in the Metn district of Beirut, to replace
the murdered anti-Syrian MP Pierre Gemayel, will further weaken the
Government of Fouad Siniora.

The Prime Minister has faced widespread calls to resign from an
unlikely alliance of the Shia Muslim Hezbollah movement and some of
the leading figures in the Maronite Christian community.

Official results showed that the opposition headed by Michel Aoun
won the narrowest of victories with his candidate, Camille Khoury,
defeating Amin Gemayel, the Government-backed former President and
father of the murdered former MP, by 418 votes out of about 79,000

As well as damaging the Government, the move also displayed the
increasing divisions within Lebanon’s Maronite Christian parties,
who are split between support for the Sunni-led administration, which
they have traditionally backed, and the opposition led by Hezbollah,
which started last summer’s war with Israel and is funded by Iran.

The vote’s outcome was also considered crucial as it was expected
to show which way the Christian electorate was leaning ahead of a
presidential election scheduled for next month. Lebanon’s president
is traditionally a Maronite Christian who is chosen by Parliament,
and an anti-Government president would pile even greater pressure on
Mr Siniora’s administration.

Mr Aoun is a leading candidate for the position.

Simon Abi Ramia, an adviser to Mr Aoun, told the AFP news agency
today that yesterday’s vote proved that he enjoyed widespread
support, especially as he had defeated what he described as "a
historical figure" in a region known as a traditional stronghold
of the Government. "A victory is a victory whether it be by one or
20,000 votes," he added.

However, despite Mr Aoun’s victory, the narrowness of his success
left media reaction in Lebanon muted.

"A difference of 418 votes: a fake victory," said the headline of the
pro-Government French language daily L’Orient Le Jour. The newspaper
added that had it not been for the support of the Armenian community
in one district, where Mr Gemayel had alleged vote-rigging, Mr Aoun’s
party would have been defeated.

However, the pro-Syrian opposition-aligned newspaper Al-Akhbar said
although Mr Aoun won by a slim margin, the results put to rest claims
by the ruling coalition that he did not represent the true Christian
majority. "Even though his victory was not overwhelming, Aoun came
out the winner," the newspaper said. "He has answered to those who
pretend that he is no longer the leader of the Christian community."

Despite its high-profile defeat the Government won some consolation
with victory in a separate by-election yesterday, called after the
murder of another pro-Western politician, Walid Eido, a Sunni Muslim,
who was killed in a car bomb in June. In what was considered a safe
seat in Beirut, the pro-Government candidate Mohamad Amin Itani won
the contest.